Donald Trump is Donald Trump–ing again. Speaking at a campaign rally on Wednesday night, he suggested President Obama actually created the Islamic State terror group. “In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump said in Florida. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.” Then for good measure, the GOP nominee worked his general election rival into the nonsensical myth. “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”
It’s not totally surprising to hear such an idea from Trump, who has previously claimed that Clinton had a founding role in the creation of ISIS and suggested that Obama is somehow sympathetic to the terror group. If you wanted to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, an overly generous reading of his comments would be something like, President Obama and his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy decisions in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere have contributed to the rise of ISIS. Trump, after all, has offered similar criticism in the past, albeit in less coherent terms. But that is not what Trump said on Wednesday—and, much more importantly, also not what he wanted voters to hear, as the candidate himself has since made clear.
Trump was given multiple chances to walk back his comments Thursday morning but repeatedly passed them up. During an interview on CNBC, Trump even feigned surprise that what he said was controversial in the first place. “What?” he asked. “Are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS?” During a separate interview, he was offered multiple lifelines by a friendly interviewer only to bat them away. “I know what you meant,” conservative radio host and Trump-endorser Hugh Hewitt told him. “You meant that [Obama] created the vacuum, he lost the peace.” To which Trump promptly responded: “No, I meant that he’s the founder of ISIS, I do.” Hewitt, though, kept at it with his best impersonation of Sean Hannity leading Trump to water, via the official transcript:
Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that—that was the founding of ISIS, OK?
Hewitt: Well, that, you know, I have a saying, Donald Trump, the mnemonic device I use is Every Liberal Really Seems So, So Sad. E is for Egypt, L is for Libya, S is for Syria, R is for Russia reset. [Editor’s note: Hewitt’s actual mnemonic device reads like so.] They screwed everything up. You don’t get any argument from me. But by using the term ‘founder,’ they’re hitting you on this again. Mistake?
Trump: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.
Hewitt: I did. I did. I played it.
Trump: I gave her the co-founder.
Hewitt: I know what you’re arguing.
Trump: You’re not, and let me ask you, do you not like that?
Hewitt: I don’t. I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.
Trump: Well, I disagree.
Things only get more muddled from there, as they often do when Trump speaks. But after all of Hewitt’s prompting, Trump finally nodded vaguely to Obama’s “bad policies” and how “if he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS”—but even with those caveats, he made it clear his conclusion hadn’t changed: “Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.” Hewitt then countered one last time by suggesting that he personally would use “different language” to communicate the same criticism. Trump’s response was remarkable for its awareness. “But they wouldn’t talk about your language,” he told Hewitt, “and they do talk about my language, right?”
That remark is telling, and it illustrates something that should be obvious by now but is often lost in the noise of each new controversy that comes every time Trump says something outlandish and/or obviously untrue. This was not some ad-libbed comment that went awry, a bad joke that did not land, or the candidate going “off message,” as Beltway pundits call it. In fact, he’s completely on message, and this has been the message for years, dating back to Obama’s first term, during which Trump used the birther movement to lay the foundation for his current presidential run. More than anything, Trump has built his campaign on (white) America’s fears of the other, and what better way for him to harness those than by othering the sitting president of the United States, be it by questioning his citizenship, his faith, or his loyalty. It doesn’t matter to Trump whether his wild-eyed accusations are true; it doesn’t matter to him whether they’re offensive. All that matters to him is casting an illusion his supporters want to believe in.